We track down the top guns preparing to take to the skies for Abu Dhabi's Red Bull Air Race this weekend
The air around the Corniche bursts into a hurricane of smoke and noise. Is it a pigeon on fire? Is it a plane? Well, yes, it’s a plane (burning pigeons don’t make that kind of a hullabaloo). To be precise, it’s 15 planes fighting it out over two days for the privilege of winning the opening round of the Red Bull Air Race, 2009. The race is on, but as last year’s winner Hannes Arch admits, the outcome is far from certain.
Like the slopes of his native Austria, the reigning champion retains a certain cool – the man practically sweats liquid nitrogen. Having begun his career as a test pilot for hang-gliders, the inscrutable Austrian previously earned his crust as a professional Base jumper.
Our squeak of admiration is navigated expertly, like an awkward race gate, followed by a blasé description of the financial realities of getting sponsorship.
Arch has the terse sensibility of a man unhappy when not risking life and limb. Among his most eye-watering exploits, he has scaled the west ridge of the Eiger before leaping (as you do) from its north face. He has also flown his winning Edge 540 plane under the Mozart Bridge of Salzburg.
Danger is his middle name and death does his laundry on a Tuesday. According to the man himself, however, manoeuvring race gates at speeds of up to 370kph and battling 12Gs of pressure is no more dangerous than driving a car.
‘Respect, accept and always stay grounded’ is his motto – somewhat ironic given that the man spends most of his time suspended above the ground, or plummeting towards it. But it’s something that has worked for the canny Hannes, who managed to do the unthinkable last year: in only his second season on the Red Bull circuit, he climbed 10 places up the rankings to finish as Top Gun.
By his own reckoning, ‘it was completely unexpected’, beating his rival, mentor and many people’s tip to take the title this year, British pilot Paul Bonhomme, into second place.
Speaking to the defending champ, it is clear that the will to compete is still strong. The icy Austrian started his fitness programme (‘vital to maintain focus,’ he explains) in Salzburg back in January. He even has a sports psychologist, ‘because that’s what professional athletes do’.
He is gallant enough to narrow his closest challengers down to about half the field, including Britain’s Nigel Lamb, France’s Nicolas Ivanoff, and perennial favourites Kirby Chambliss and Bonhomme, but it is clear that he won’t have it all his own way this year.
One of the outcomes of Arch’s unexpected success has been that it has paved the way for a number of new faces in a field that traditionally veers more towards ‘experience’.
Four rookie pilots have made the cut this year, including Matt Hall, Yoshide Muroya, Matthias Dolderer and the youngest ever Red Bull Air Race pilot, Canadian Pete Mcleod.
The Lewis Hamilton of the air race circuit, Mcleod was practically bred for flying. The latest in three generations of pilots, at 25, he is less than half the age of the likes of Air Race regulars Nigel Lamb and Peter Benseyei.
The confident youngster is banking on this to surprise his erstwhile, more experienced competitors, but is humble enough to admit that he doesn’t expect to repeat Arch’s sudden success.
‘Things are very competitive now, and fractions of a second count. In the past, that fraction of a second could be the result of a tip a veteran gave to a rookie. But if they do give tips, I’m certainly not going to believe everything,’ he says.
Camaraderie aside, Arch’s sudden rise will have made those old hands more reticent above divulging time-worn hints. But Mcleod has been flying aerobatics since he was 16 and earned his pilot’s licence before he even learned to drive.
His father taught him the basics and he gained his wings at airshow freestyle competitions across North America, eventually becoming an instructor aged just 18. ‘I’d like to prove to any critics that I’m ready,’ he says. Whether he is or not will be witnessed above the sands of the Corniche this week.
Either way, as the modifications get their final tweak and the pilots button up their leather flight jackets, the fifth Red Bull Air Race looks to be another thriller. Visitors will even get the chance to meet the pilots and see their planes up close at the Public Pit Walk along Mina Zayed on qualifying day (April 17). But as the excitement builds, it’s enough to make even a daredevil tremble – no matter what they say.
I wish I could fly...
Indoor Skydiving If you want to experience two minutes of freefall flying but don’t fancy doing so at more than four feet above springy, safe, soft flooring, try indoor skydiving. Good fun for groups and acrophobes alike! Abu Dhabi Health and Fitness Club, Dhs180 per person, www.bluebanana.com.
Microlighting Essentially a hang-glider with an engine and a seat, classes are available for those willing to brave the exposed confines of the microlight cockpit. Aeroclub A course costs Dhs12,000, including 10 hours of assisted flight. Umm Al Quwain, Call 055 212 0155.
The Race The pilots have to navigate a course of air-filled pylons, flying horizontally through the red ones and vertically (or knife flying) through the blue ones at speeds of up to 370km/h. Pilots are penalised time for either touching or flying through these at the wrong angle. The race is divided into training (determines the order of the race) and qualifying rounds, held on April 17. The next day, the pilots are cut down over three rounds until they reach the last four, who fight for the title. The Red Bull Air Race takes place on Abu Dhabi’s Corniche from April 17-18